“Do you have a restless urge to write?”
On Monday, I was browsing the dollar bin at the Housing Works Bookstore—possibly my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, aside, of course, from the Strand—when I found a paperback copy of Couples by John Updike. (It’s Updike’s trashiest novel, and probably his best, or at least the only one I feel the urge to read again every year.) Inside the book was tucked a copy of the following advertisement. Click on the image below for more detail:
Bennett Cerf was one of the most famous publishers of his time—I still have fond memories of his Book of Laughs—but if the Famous Writers School looks like something of a scam, well, it was. Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death is one of the great classics of investigative journalism, wrote a savage takedown of the school in the Atlantic Monthly that is still worth reading today. Basically, and I’m simplifying only a little here, the school would employ salesmen to convince housewives to pay $900 for a correspondence course that they could have obtained at a local college for a fraction of the price. None of the writers pictured in the advertisement ever looked at students’ assignments, which were graded by an overworked staff of freelancers. And the school’s entire business model depended on the fact that few students would ever finish the course.
Yet thousands of people still signed up. And I can’t help but be reminded of this story in light of yesterday’s announcement that the Curtis Brown Agency is opening its own writing school, charging students $2,500 apiece for a three-month writing workshop. The big lure: “Stand-out students will be offered representation.” Of course, there’s no telling how many students will be signed by the agency, or to what extent this workshop is intended primarily to generate revenues at a difficult time for publishing. But even if the workshop is everything it promises, it still raises the question of how useful any kind of paid education is for writers. Is the Curtis Brown workshop, or the Famous Writers School, any better or worse than a standard MFA program?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never taken a formal writing class, despite having gone to a college populated by more than its share of established and aspiring novelists. And my gut instinct is to say that such classes, aside from the professional connections they might (or might not) provide, are probably unnecessary for the majority of writers. What a writer needs, above all else, is readers—a handful of intelligent people who will criticize and praise the writer’s work in appropriate measure. A writer needs to read—the great, good, and indifferent books of all eras, as well as a few of the best books on writing itself. And a writer needs to write—as often as possible, ideally every day. A formal class is primarily useful, it seems to me, in providing a structured setting for these three things, which any sufficiently motivated writer could probably find on his or her own. (Which is why a correspondence course like that of the Famous Writers School, which advertises itself as “a class of one,” is presumably not the best option.)
It might be argued that the same principle applies to any kind of formal education, at least in the humanities: with access to a library, interesting friends, and a lot of personal discipline, a student can receive more or less the same education that he or she would receive as a college undergraduate. (T.S. Eliot, among others, was openly contemptuous of the idea of studying English literature in college, which might be done equally well, or so he argued, in the student’s spare time.) Of course, without the social and professional benefits of an accredited program, it’s going to be hard to find work as, say, a professor of classics. But writing is one of the few professional fields that still welcomes autodidacts—which is one of the things that makes it so interesting, and terrifying.
In the end, every writer, even a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is essentially self-taught. Which is why I feel that the best way might still be to go it alone. (If you’re serious about being a writer, you’ll eventually find yourself going it alone anyway.)